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Reading: What We See and What We Get

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The most indelible images from the gulf war, to my mind, were the famous video views of a "smart bomb" at work; time and again that bomb sought its bunker target, plummeting hour after hour through the endless present of CNN newscasts. For some observers the video views showed that we had managed to sanitize war, to surgically hit only the bad guys. For others the tape symbolized everything that was wrong with the war: we saw the bomb drop, but saw nothing of its impact on the ground--not to mention the impact of the "dumb bombs," which were released in much greater quantities. The video-game view was the perfect symbol of modern warfare not because of what it showed us but because of what it left out.

This wasn't the first time photographic coverage was made interesting largely by what it omitted. World War II marked the heyday both of the picture magazines (most notably Life) and of the newsreel--more than ever before, Americans were hungry for images of world events. Yet it was not until September 1943 that pictures of dead American servicemen began appearing in U.S. periodicals. In February of that year Life published a photo essay detailing the adventures of a marine, known only as Bill, in the Pacific theater; the essay mentioned he'd been killed in battle, but government censors wouldn't let the magazine publish a picture of his body. The government line was that it would be bad for civilian morale to show fallen Americans (fallen enemies were fair game--a Life cover from February 1943 featured a fresh Japanese skull on a destroyed tank). But Life's editors argued: "If Bill had the guts to take it, we ought to have the guts to look at it, face-to-face." By September the censors had agreed, and the magazine printed a photo of three American bodies sprawled on an island beach near a demolished landing craft.

Most of the mail the magazine subsequently received supported the decision to publish the photo. The photograph was reproduced, pinned on bulletin boards, and used to exhort civilians to greater sacrifices of their own for the war effort. It was never shocking or demoralizing, as the censors had feared; rather it became a visual representation of the idea of sacrifice. People had a common understanding of it, and during the second half of the war photos of the fallen were no longer anomalies.

For almost as long as photography has been around, theorists have considered the question of what really happens when a photograph enters the public realm. The latest entry in the field is Vicki Goldberg's The Power of Photography: How Photographs Changed Our Lives. Unlike many previous authors, Goldberg, a contributing editor of American Photo magazine, looks at the history of individual photographs. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln may have gotten him elected president; how did it happen? What was the impact of the photos an Army photographer snapped during the My Lai massacre? How about the first views taken from space of the whole earth? Goldberg acknowledges that influence is difficult to measure: "Photographs are direct and immediate, but like ideas, their full import may take time to sink in. A few, a very few, act like matches and set instant fires. Most pile up like tinder with other pictures and events until they can generate a lot of heat." By examining publication histories and television broadcasts, Goldberg makes a stab at measuring the effect mainly of the photographs that kindled instant fires.

Goldberg's book relies on the notion that images are a sort of shorthand, symbols that literally reduce complex issues to black and white: the history of the Middle East is convoluted, but anyone can understand a bomb falling. And the ease of comprehension in no way limits the opportunity for conflicting interpretations. Whether viewers reacted to the smart-bomb tape with pride or revulsion had more to do with their viewpoint than with the image itself.

Many of Goldberg's photographs became influential, however, when a single interpretation was widely shared. The image of the dead soldiers on the beach convinced some viewers to make their own sacrifices: sales of war bonds went up after its publication. The ripple effects of such widespread public reaction can be awesome--and on occasion can be measured. But usually the influence even of widely publicized and famous photographs is more nebulous.

In May of 1963 newspapers carried front-page pictures of police in Birmingham, Alabama, using dogs and fire hoses against peaceful black demonstrators. In one famous image, a young black man stands impassively while a white policeman in sunglasses grabs at his shirt. A German shepherd leashed on the cop's left hand lunges at the demonstrator's crotch. I think every viewer must have a visceral reaction to this photo, so explicit are its physicality and tension.

Such photos caused a sensation in the north, where racism had been something whites talked about but not something that grabbed at their guts. "Racism had been an abstract idea, an ism like socialism or unionism," writes Goldberg. "The photographs gave this abstraction a visible image, which was easier to hate than an idea." Racism had become an image of ordinary people made shockingly vulnerable. There was public outrage, domestic and foreign; and eventually the Kennedy administration began pushing a civil-rights bill.

Unknown to the public was the publicity savvy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which helped organize the demonstrations. The SCLC knew that the notoriously racist sheriff "Bull" Connor and his police force would respond vigorously to any demonstration. Photographs always seem to glorify the underdog, and the SCLC set up a sure-win campaign. Greenpeace did the same thing in the 1970s when it positioned protesters between whaling ships and their prey. Pictures of demonstrators marching wouldn't accomplish much; pictures of demonstrators being set upon would.

Because the Birmingham photos reached a nationwide audience, they set up a common currency of images for millions of Americans, black and white. Photographs can just as easily separate as unify, though. In the summer of 1955 Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, visited his cousins in Mississippi. A white woman said that Till made sexual advances toward her. A few days later the woman's husband and another man abducted the youth. Till's body was recovered later. One of his eyes had been gouged out; part of his forehead was crushed. Eventually he'd been shot. The mainstream white media gave considerable coverage to the funeral--over 100,000 people viewed the body in Chicago--but it did not print a picture of the victim's face. The black Jet magazine did, close up, two weeks in a row. Though a few other black publications reprinted the grisly photo, Jet declined further requests to reproduce it--until 1988, when it was reproduced on the documentary series Eyes on the Prize. Almost unknown to whites, the picture had been for 30 years, Goldberg writes, a sort of icon--an instantly recognizable image and symbol of the dangers of racism--to the millions of blacks who saw it.

Separate cultures can be maintained in the same geographic space if they are exposed to different visual imagery. Nowadays, though, TV is so pervasive that all Americans share pretty much the same visual culture. Everyone has seen the same pictures of Saddam Hussein with the hostages, George Bush in front of a flag, a mass murder in Texas. Everyone is familiar with the same photo opportunities, especially when almost identical images are flashed on all the networks, and the next day in the newspapers.

Small wonder, then, that the surfeit of images has overridden verbal culture. Ronald Reagan, Goldberg writes, had a comfortable presidency largely because it was rare to see a photograph of him in which he didn't look ebullient. The news reported on TV or in the paper could be bad, but many Americans didn't really believe it while Reagan looked so content: "People took Reagan's affable image to heart, and in such matters the eye and heart overrule the mind. We learn at an early age to believe our eyes rather than our ears. . . . In the media age image makers can manipulate this trust. The polls kept showing great popular support for Reagan even when the voters disagreed with his policies."

Here is one grim result of a widespread visual culture: the dumbing down, or outright manipulation, of public discourse. The visual drone of images drowns out any real spoken public debate. As Susan Sontag wrote: "Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks." Our common visual culture is common not only in the sense of being shared but in the sense of being mediocre.

Most of Goldberg's work centers around photographs as political images, as tools in election campaigns, social-reform movements, the boosting of public morale. Goldberg also discusses the cult of celebrity, a direct result of photography and the reproducibility of images in the press. Another chapter addresses some of the "iconic" photographs that have helped to define our modern worldview, such as the first images of the earth taken from outer space, which helped launch the environmental movement. It is relatively easy to measure the effect of a tool like photography in the public arena; the results are as tangible as votes, as poll results, as legislation passed or denied, as careers launched or ruined.

What The Power of Photography lacks is a look at the personal, at how a culture of images has affected individuals outside the sphere of public life. Some linguists have argued that language determines how we look at the world, that speakers of Hopi, say, have a fundamentally different relationship with the world than speakers of English. Today images play as large a role in our lives as words, so would the same not be true of them? Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936, "Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. . . . The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception."

By limiting herself to a discussion of individual photographs--valuable though such a project is--Goldberg excludes the cumulative effect of countless "unimportant" photographs. Advertisements, snapshots, newscasts, TV shows--taken singly such images are irrelevant, but as an agglomeration they have overwhelmingly affected the way we see the world.

A discussion of this more diffuse influence is complicated because one must consider not only photography but the phenomena it has fueled, such as advertising and modern visual entertainment. How have Americans been affected by watching television an average of six hours a day? How have vacations been changed by countless snapshot opportunities--do tourists view scenery differently now that it is so easily reproducible, so portable? Is our notion of self-worth different than it was 150 years ago, now that images of role models are readily available for every aspect of life? How do we view violence now that its images are everywhere on TV and in print?

It is possible that in the time before photography--and more importantly, before widespread printed reproduction of images--people moved about the world with more idiosyncratic ways of seeing. True, people have always been stirred and influenced by common images, but the sheer volume of images today is something new. Most likely our shared visual culture has made us more homogenous, less able to react to the world in a unique, individual way. Say you see a sunset and think it's beautiful. Is the view just a reminder of a scene in a movie? A beer commercial with stirring music? A postcard from a vacationing friend?

"In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe," wrote Susan Sontag. "They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing." What we're experimenting with now is the question of what remains meaningful once we are able to see pictures of everything.

The Power of Photography: How Photographs Changed Our Lives by Vicki Goldberg, Abbeville Press, $39.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Moore--Black Star.

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